How often have you found yourself fighting to stay awake during an afternoon meeting or had your curiosity piqued by those ads for liquid energy supplements that promise to keep you awake? Americans are sleep-deprived. Why? There are several reasons, not the least of which is our struggling economy. When employers lay off workers or stop hiring, fewer employees are left to do more of the work.
Often these workers feel guilty that they survived the hatchet and are afraid they too will lose their jobs. With angst, they work unreasonably long hours, keeping themselves awake with caffeine and sugar. By the time they get home, although their bodies might be exhausted, their brains are too wired to fall asleep.
Poor "sleep hygiene" is another culprit. No, it’s not about washing behind your ears before retiring, although a pre-bedtime hot bath is actually a very good idea. Sleep hygiene relates to how people interact with their computer, TV, video games, cell phone and other devices in the evening. While engaged, we often nod off, then wake up only to nod off again, until we finally turn off our computer or TV and go to bed. The problem is, now we’re awake, and so we lie in bed counting sheep and fighting monkey mind, an unsettled or restless feeling.
People who habitually lose sleep accumulate a sleep debt. At that point, one good night is not enough to catch up. Unfortunately, the inverse is not true. We cannot bank extra sleep to spend later.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver fatigue is responsible for 100,000 motor vehicle accidents per year and more than 1,500 fatalities. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation results in poor eye-hand coordination and impaired judgment. It also enhances the negative effects of alcohol.
Chronic sleep deprivation not only makes people slow and irritable. It can result in poor memory, learning difficulties and clinical depression. Lack of sleep reduces our body’s ability to produce proteins called cytokines that help us fight infection and actually weakens the immune system.
What’s the solution?
» Stop caffeine and other stimulants at least six hours before bedtime.
» Turn off technical and electronic devices one hour before bedtime.
» If you chose to watch television, sit up and watch it; don’t snooze.
» Wind down. Before bed, turn down the lights, take a bath or shower, read some light fiction. Do something simple and enjoyable. Don’t work.
» Listen to your body. When a wave of sleepiness comes to you at night, ride it, don’t fight it.
» Follow the breath. Without trying to control it, just notice your breathing. When the mind wanders, bring it back and follow the breath again.
» Maintain a healthy sleep rhythm and wake up at the same time every day even on weekends.
Severe, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness might be due to a condition that requires medical intervention. Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing intermittently stops and blood oxygen levels go down. Symptoms can include loud snoring, waking abruptly with shortness of breath, morning headaches and nodding off during the day. If you have one more of these symptoms, consult your physician.
Whatever the cause, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to many emotional and physical disorders. Make getting your eight hours one of your top priorities. Your best business decisions will come when you are rested. It really is that important.
Ira Zunin, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A., is medical director of Manakai o Malama Integrative Healthcare Group and Rehabilitation Center and CEO of Global Advisory Services Inc. Please submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.